Attention, lovers of Canadiana and Torontonian curiosities, or Toronto visitors looking for the ultimate local souvenir! You have a chance to own a piece of Toronto history! Round 2 of Honest Ed’s sign sale is taking place on Saturday, April 11 at 8 am and, having been a proud survivor of Round 1, I wish to offer you this warning: it’s not for the faint of heart.
Eight hours. That’s how long I waited in line to buy a sign. If you haven’t been to Toronto or don’t know Honest Ed’s, you’re likely wondering how three signs could possibly be worth an eight-hour line. I’ll tell you.
Since Honest Ed’s opened in 1948 at the corner of Bloor and Bathurst, it’s been one of the most important landmarks in Toronto’s visual history. Not only that, but its eccentric owner, Ed Mirvish, is somewhat of a local hero. The vast bargain circus has long been a lifeline to low-income and immigrant families, collectors of kitsch, and rainy day perusers alike. And at the centre of any circus is an eccentric ring leader: the late Ed Mirvish. A man of the people, Ed always had a vision and, not being one to mince words, his vision is plastered all over Honest Ed’s one-block-by-one-block marquee storefront — “There’s no place like this place, anyplace!”. Ed’s legacy stretches far beyond the bounds of the iconic department store. His annual Thanksgiving turkey giveaway continues 27 years later, and Mirvish Productions continues to bring Broadway to Toronto.
Peering into the windows or wandering through the aisles of Honest Ed’s, you would notice one thing. The trademark red and blue signs — or “showcards” as Ed called them — line the walls. When Honest Ed’s announced they would be closing in 2016, these hand-painted signs went from being utilitarian to collectible remnants of the beloved eye-sore. Produced in-house by designers Doug Kerr and Wayne Reuben, they recall the good ol’ days of business, showbiz, and design. Before word processing and digital printing, there was Doug and Wayne, diligently writing out each sign for pots and pans, men’s trousers, and kitschy souvenirs with their distinctive hand-lettering.
So, as you consider taking on the crowds this Saturday, let me offer you a play-by-play of Round 1. To be clear, this is not meant to deter you. On the contrary, it was an experience I will tell my grandkids as my three signs hang proudly on my wall, medals of honour for my tenacity, endurance, and undefeatable sentimentality. However, in the words the antagonist Scar of Mirvish Productions’ The Lion King, “BE PREPARED!“.
For the Love of Ed: Lessons Learned In An 8-Hour Line
11:45am – As I approach Honest Ed’s, coffee and chocolate croissant in-hand, I notice the line stretches along Bloor from Bathurst to Markham Street. “Not so bad,” I think, “Jesse is probably almost at the front by now.”
I’m wrong. Dead wrong. The line stretches far beyond Markham — in fact, it does a full 360 around the store, along Bloor, down Markham, across Lennox, and back to the corner of Bathurst. In 45 minutes, Jesse has made it a mere block from Lennox to the corner of Markham.
iPhone battery: 81%
1:00pm – One hour down, Jesse has to go back to work, but we (the people of the line) are hopeful it will start picking up pace. I start to banter with other liners about the transpiring events. Although hopeful, we watch in horror as a girl drops her freshly acquired sign in a puddle on the way out, only to laugh it off! Ungrateful. How dare she.
Another character emerges in the story of the line. The woman pictured above has decided to take it upon herself to shoot a cinema verité style documentary with her pink Cybershot camera. She’s dedicated. More than once, we see her bound across traffic, jump over the baracade, and push past news crews, just to get that perfect shot of an emerging new sign owner!
iPhone battery: 65%
2:00pm – A friend of mine, and soon to be local hero, emerges triumphant! Having been there since 8am, he has reaped the worm the rest of us line people weren’t early enough to get. He is immediately swarmed by cameras and sign groupies, eager to hear the latest “front line” news and offer him a mere $20 for his wares.
iPhone battery: 32%
3:00pm – The corner is in sight. How much longer can it really be? Doubts are beginning to surface and I hear grumblings as people worry if there are even any signs left! At this point, alliances are forming. They are necessary to survive. A girl about my age, also waiting alone, becomes my comrade. Her name is Estelle and she holds my spot as I rush to the nearest bathroom. My phone is dying, but there’s no time to charge it. The money in my meter has likely run out, but there’s no time to feed it.
The panic in the moments that follow is nearly indescribable. How long have I been gone? What if they let everyone in at once and don’t believe me that I was in line? Would I recognize Estelle? Would the Democratic Republic of The Line grant me re-entry??
iPhone battery: 14%
4:00pm – We are close. Or so it seems. We have turned the corner onto Bloor Street and are approaching the barricaded area by the door.
Now that we are off the side streets, we are exposed to the elements…the elements of judgement! Passersby stop to ask us why we’re in line. “The signs!”, we gasp. They don’t understand. One man stares puzzled at the store window as we point out one such sign. “But I could make those,” he says. Not the time, dude. Not the time. We’re tired, we’re hungry, and so far, we’re empty handed with no promise that this wait has been justified. It’s been over four hours and there’s no turning back. Estelle goes to get french fries at Pizza Pizza.
iPhone battery: 11%
5:00pm – We make it through the doors, but victory is short lived. The line does not end there. No, not even close. It winds around the store, through the aisles of kitsch — tacky Toronto souvenirs, weird kitchen appliances, flickering memorial candles (for the fallen but not forgotten people of The Line?). We stare longingly at the signs advertising pots and pans and waffle makers. Couldn’t we take these? Would they know? Would it mean enough? Only in polite, line-waiting Canada would people not rush the store for these signs.
By this point, Estelle and I have talked about family, love, career goals, and what we would do if buddy ahead of us tells his story of the six-hour wait for Bobby Orr’s signature for the 15th time.
iPhone battery: 8%
6:00pm – Stairway of Hell. Each step brings us closer and yet we’re still so far. News of signs past trickles down The Line as people walk out muttering, “good luck”, “hang in there”, “it’s worth it!” — I’m not sure if it’s the flickering fluorescent lights or the musty smell of broken dreams, but delusion sets in. Our favourite Cybershot documentarian has gotten into a fight with the security guard as she tries to film him. I’m not sure whether to laugh or cry. Is she even in line?
iPhone battery: 4%
6:30pm – The end is in sight. As we approach the front, we begin to analyse the checkout system. No wonder we’ve been moving at a pace a snail would be proud of. The line that was so ordered and calm up till now just explodes into chaos in the front. People are let loose into a tiny area piled with signs. They rush around trying to find the best ones, then attempt to join the checkout line, which seems to have no beginning or end! What the *expletive*? Only two cashiers?! Is this a joke??
Someone at the front starts the wave, which carries through as far as I can see. Spirits are heightened briefly.
iPhone battery: 2%
7:00pm – At last, the end is near. It was agonising to watch signs I wanted be scooped up without possibility of intervention. I call out to one girl with a “Lazy Susan” sign – “Please, that’s my mom’s name!”, I call out desperately. She doesn’t hear.
iPhone battery: 2%
7:30pm – We made it. It’s surreal. Eight hours have lead up to this moment and with each hesitating second, another piece of history flutters away. We begin to rummage.
A woman in line yells out, “Is anyone named Susan?”. I look up to see her holding the “Lazy Susan” sign I thought was long gone. Success! I have my first sign! And due to the price being changed from $8.99 to $5.99, I get a bonus price tag stapled to it! With a three-sign limit, you have to choose wisely and take small victories. I guess it was a slow year for dinner parties and Scrabble games.
iPhone battery: 1%
7:45pm – We watch in disgust as people unceremoniously pick the first ones they see. Did their eight-hour torturous journey mean nothing?!
We’re ruthlessly judgmental. That sign? Really?! It becomes clear that we need guidelines. Only the large size. No name brands. As many flourishes as possible and absolutely no scuffs or tears!
iPhone battery: 1%
8:00pm – Fifteen in hand, we join the checkout line, which weaves dangerously past tables of discarded signage — we can’t help but pick up new ones as we go. How I’m going to whittle these 15 beautiful cards down to three, I do not know. I spend the next half hour discussing the merits of each sign with Estelle. “This one says Ed’s Bargains on it, but the calligraphy on this one is better!” Although I ask for outside opinions, I am aware that the motives of my fellow patrons are slippery. Are they pointing out the smudged paint so they can snatch up my fallen heroes??
iPhone battery: 1%
8:30pm – I make my final choice as I hand over $14.95. The guy behind me, who’d been named “My Handsome Fellow” by an old lady trying to bud her way to the front, had been eyeing my “Men’s Coat” sign for the last hour. I couldn’t let go of the others, so I look and give him a painful nod. “Give it a good home,” I sigh. “You can come visit it,” he replies, grinning and clutching it tight. I watch as the store manager signs, dates, and stamps my three precious signs. “Lazy Susan. That’s neat!”
And with that, I’m released into the world again. Free of linear solitude. Free of desperate glances and whispered frustrations. Free of longing for perfection.
I hug Estelle. “Thank you, I wouldn’t have made it without you.” We part ways just as my phone dies. There’s no parking ticket on my car.
iPhone battery: 0%
So by now, you must be dying to know what signs made the cut and what went back to my fellow line-dwellers!
The Fallen Heroes: Lost but never forgotten!
The Final Three: Mine, all mine!
Aside: Why Bother?
Upon recounting my experience to others, I was faced with a lot of “why bother” and “tear that sh*thole down”. I guess they don’t understand, can’t understand. Beyond being an iconic Toronto landmark, Ed Mirvish’s legacy can be felt across the city. The son of Jewish immigrants from Lithuania, he was a success story and dedicated his life to bringing others up. He created countless jobs across his restaurants, theatres, and stores. In fact, he gave me my first job at the tender age of 11 years old.
In 2000, I saw an open casting call for The Lion King at the Princess of Wales. Flash forward past 5 auditions, 2,000 hopefuls, 3 months of rehearsals, and there I was as Young Nala in front of sold-out 1,500-person crowds. I would go to Ed’s Warehouse for dinner once a week and often stop by Ed’s table to say hi. On Ed Mirvish Day 2000, I found myself on a float in his annual parade singing Happy Birthday to the man himself. THAT is why I lined up for eight hours. Not for a sign, but for a piece of history and to pay tribute to the man who gave me my first job and to a man who believed in Toronto before many did.